Colors Aren’t Real (And I Can Prove It)

by Sean Reo

Yes, yes, I know, it’s an absurd claim, but it actually isn’t impossible at all, and YOU are the one who is pulling the colorful wool over your own eyes. I can prove it to you. First, let’s talk about colors. Did you ever wonder why we can see colors at all?  Well, it starts in your eye (bet ya didn’t see that coming). Inside your eye are these things called rods and cones which actually take in the light that hits your retina. All these parts of your eye handle different sets of colors.  One handles red and green, another handles blue and yellow, and the other is black and white. 

When light hits your eyes, these parts of your eye do their thing, yada yada yada, a signal hits your brain and bam—you experience the beauty and majesty of color! “Yeah, so colors are real, man.” No!  Stop it, I’m not done explaining it yet.

Ok, ok, so let me explain, all this is happening in your mind. It is like your brain is playing tricks on you. It’s just making you feel like colors are real. But feelings aren’t reality, are they? Judging by the fact that I feel great today, I’m going to have to go with no.

Here’s a way to think about it.  Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What if, what I see as blue you see as red?” Or another variation, “What if you saw colors inverted, like an edited image or a film negative?” It would be impossible to tell, wouldn’t it?  There wouldn’t be an image we could both look at or anything external to compare that would be able to conclusively tell us that we see different colors because the only way to figure something like that out would be to jump inside the other person’s mind.  That (unfortunately) is impossible.  So how can I say that the sky is really blue if you might see it as yellow, but your yellow is blue to you?

Colors aren't real
Colors aren’t real

Ok, what about this: dogs are colorblind, right?  Well, actually, they aren’t, but let’s just pretend we don’t know that for sure. So, dogs are colorblind (for us right now, not in real life). Isn’t it possible, then, that when you take your dog out for a walk, and you look at the bright green grass, your dog sees it as a muted gray?

The answer is,

“Yes,” In our fake example here. And now all color realists reply, “so what?

I continue, if you see it as green and your dog sees it as gray, is the grass really green or is it gray?

“Uhh, yeah, I see it as green, so it’s really green.”

So, just to be clear color isn’t all about you.

At this point, I’m starting to think you’re not listening.  If you see green and someone else (or your dog) sees it as something else, then it’s evident that the color isn’t actually in the grass. Light receptors in the eyeballs pick up the message our brain sends that there is color. Newton that really smart guy remarked that color is not fixed to objects. Instead, the outside of an object reflects what we perceive as color and absorbs the rest. Color is being projected onto the external world by how our mind observes reflective light. It is an illusionary product of our psyche. Just an overactive imagination that generates the beauty of the seemingly colorful world, just to screw with us.

In fact, one could argue that entirely colorblind people are actually closer to the experience of actual reality because they don’t have their mind getting in the way and projecting all its prejudices onto the world.  And by prejudices, I mean colors… Ok, I can understand why you think this sounds a little crazy, but everything I’ve said makes sense, right?

If your dog sees gray and you see green, who is right?  You? That’s a little anthropocentric and kinda also makes you a jerk.  What if there was an advanced alien race that could see, like, infinity colors (woah…), would they be right or you?

These confounding questions are easily solved if we just accept that colors aren’t real.  The sky isn’t really blue, the grass isn’t really green, not even your blood is really red.  But that doesn’t mean you have to start living in black and white.  That sounds terrible. “Look at that bright gray rainbow, I love all the shades of black and white,” yeah, you’d sound like an insane person.  In fact, I think I may have just figured out at this moment why sad kids all wear black and white because they have accepted the unfortunate reality that colors are fake.

You don’t have to be sad, so please, feel free to go on living with colors and all their beauty and majesty. Use them in paintings and as symbolism in poems. Maybe now you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the presence of color, and a thought or two about what your friends are really seeing in you.

Ok, I painted you in a very unfriendly color, but it was all to prove my point, there really is no such thing a color.

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